Diwali marks Ram’s return to Ayodhya, victorious from the battle with Ravan. Ahead of the festival this year, we look at the many versions of the epic, which has shaped our culture, arts and politics. It is a splendidly various tradition, from the rationalism of the Jain Ramayana to the humour of the Mapilla Ramayanam. It is both a political ideal and a deeply personal experience. It is the mega-story that contains a multitude of narratives of India
Twenty five years ago, then BJP president LK Advani started out on his Ram rath — a mini-truck redesigned to resemble a chariot — from Somnath in Gujarat to mobilise cadres to build a Ram temple in place of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya. Advani did not reach Ayodhya as he was arrested on route in Samastipur, Bihar, but the BJP arrived on the national stage riding the massive communal polarisation in the wake of his yatra. In his autobiography, Advani recounts that a recurrent theme in his speeches during the yatra was, “Ram bhakti se lok shakti jagrut ho sakti hai (The power of devotion for Ram can unleash people’s power).” The political campaign reinvented Ram as a militant god. Two years later, Hindutva stormtroopers demolished the Babri Masjid. The story of the making of this militant Ram has been recounted by Advani in great detail in his autobiography.
Advani was not the first person to use Ram to further political goals. Mahatma Gandhi and Periyar EV Ramasami, the founder of the Dravidian movement, leaders of entirely different ideological moorings, had used Ram to craft their own political idioms. Gandhi found in Ram the ideal political personality, who refused to see the personal and the political as separate worlds. Periyar read the Ramayana as a parable of Aryan domination over Dravidians, and Ram as the villain of the piece. Advani spotted in Ram a vehicle to promote Hindutva and win political power for his party and ideology. All three political figures recognised that the language of religion provide a powerful medium to spread ideas and mobilise people.
Is Ram an archetype of Indian politics? The pan-Indian presence and appeal of the Ramayana makes him attractive to politicians in search of symbols. The persona of Ram seems more amenable to political use, as compared to say Krishna, who is no less popular.
In an essay, ‘Ram and Krishna and Siva’ (1956), socialist leader Ram Manohar Lohia wrote of Ram, Krishna and Siva as India’s three great dreams of perfection. Ram is the epitome of the “limited personality”, Krishna of the “exuberant personality” and Siva of the “non-dimensional personality”, but each is perfect, he wrote.
The limited personality, according to Lohia, stays within the confines of the circle. In contrast, the exuberant personality recognises rules only as long as it wishes to do so and breaks them the moment they begin to prove irksome. Ram, Lohia points out, never stepped out of the circle of rules drawn around his authority. That unquestioned submission led to the three or four blemishes of his life.
There, perhaps, lies the clue to the social sanction of Ram as the ideal ruler. He represented order, submission to the rules of the day, loyalty to the existing hierarchy. Krishna, who refused to be a prisoner of rules and order, and was willing to be licentious when the situation demanded, was not an ideal to be promoted. He could subvert the system.
The tension between the political idea of the ideal king and Ram’s silences in the face of an unjust social order has been explored by many writers. In the seventh century, Sanskrit dramatist Bhavabhuti got Luv and Kush to question Ram’s disfiguring of Tadaka. In the 20th century, Malayalam playwright CN Sreekantan Nair wrote Kanchana Sita, the first play of his Ramayana trilogy, in which Ram is a tragic hero helplessly watching Kshatriyas and Brahmins fight to establish supremacy.
Nair’s Valmiki runs counter to Vasishta’s palace seer, who was a custodian of the Brahminical order. In Kanchana Sita, Valmiki represents the freedom of the forest, which refuses to endorse the inhuman caste hierarchy in the kingdom of Ayodhya. Sita is prakriti, the essence of nature, an idea that filmmaker G Aravindan pursued in his screen adaptation of Nair’s play. Nair, a radical political activist in his youth, was reading the Ramakatha in the light of the rights-based politics of his times. Periyar had also read Ramayana as a text that promoted a value system that needed to be questioned. His argument was not that of one race conquering another, but that of one idea of justice subjugating another — the Brahminical Aryans imposing their caste-centric social system on the more egalitarian Dravidians. His political agenda was to reclaim the Dravidian social idea.
Gandhi expanded the “limited personality” of Ram and turned it to an abstract idea of god and state. His Ram rajya is an ethical construct where the praja is the king and the ruler is merely the servant of the subjects. “My Ram”, Gandhi says, “the Ram of our prayers, is not the historical Ram, the son of Dasharath — the King of Ayodhya. He is the eternal, the unborn, the one without a second. Him alone I worship, His aid alone I seek, and so should you. He belongs equally to all. I, therefore, see no reason why a Mussulman or anybody should object to taking his name. But he is in no way bound to recognise God as Ram. He may utter to himself Allah or Khuda so as not to mar the harmony of the sound.” Gandhi’s “omnipresent, omnipotent Ram” resembles more the god that Kabir worshipped than Valmiki’s.
The dominant Ram narrative in Indian politics since the 1980s has been set by the Ayodhya movement and the image of the battle-ready masculine hero. The enduring appeal of the Tulsidas’s Ramcharitmanas and the popularity of Ramanand Sagar’s television Ramayan of the 1980s were channeled to prepare the ground for the Ram of Hindutva politics. Badri Narayan, author of Fascinating Hindutva (2009), explains this process thus: “The BJP was in quest of an aggressive image of Lord Ram as its symbol, which could be used to mobilise all the Hindu castes to fight against their common enemy, the Muslims. In the Ramcharitmanas, although there are multiple meanings of the symbol of Ram, they are all non-violent and non-aggressive. The only time during the whole sequence of Ramayana that Ram became aggressive was when he raised his bow and arrow to calm the sea at Rameshwaram while building the bridge to Lanka to rescue Sita. This single aggressive imagery of Ram was picked out … and merged with all the multiple non-aggressive images of Ram, and the various cultural connotations were transformed into a political one. This was made feasible through activities like Advani’s rath yatra, deep prajwalan in villages, shila pujan and circulating calenders, photographs, bindis, Ramnavami clothes, and so on, which the BJP carried out from in collaboration with the VHP”. Ramlilas became opportunities to build religion-centric coalitions or to exclude communities.
Among the paths that branch off from the Ram archetype, one seeks to expand the meaning of Ram as an inclusive, abstract idea, as Gandhi did. Another sets out to limit him in a moment of aggression.
Kabir says, plunge into Ram! / There: No Hindu. No Turk.
The story originally appeared with the headline Hero and Hero Worship